Connie Field (right) shares a moment with choir member Aleta and the Palestinian actor, Ramzi, who plays Martin Luther King.

Field Shoots ‘MLK in Palestine’ on the Fly

Michael Fox August 10, 2011

Imagine if Erich von Stroheim had followed his epic Greed with a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler. Or if Martin Scorsese were to segue from Hugo to a series of two-minute YouTube portraits of NYC eccentrics. Daftly unexpected, perhaps, but also understandably liberating for the artist. That's a pretty good description of Connie Field's latest career turn.

One of the finest documentary makers of her generation, Field's enduring body of historical films includes The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, Freedom on My Mind (co-directed with Marilyn Mulford) and, most recently, the awesomely ambitious multi-episode opus, Have You Heard from Johannesburg.

“I think that project did me in for making historical films,” she says, laughing. “It doesn’t mean I’m never going to do it again, [because] I like the feeling of making something that has a really, really long life. But I want to be able to get up and go and follow a story. It enables me to do some things that are more immediately useful.”

Field's radical shift to verité filmmaking, accompanied by an equally momentous switch in fundraising strategy, was occasioned by a telephone call from a longtime advisor, Dr. Clayborne Carson, who runs the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford. Carson was taking a gospel choir to the Occupied Territories to produce his play, Passages of Martin Luther King, with the Palestinian National Theatre, and was able to offer Field a minimal amount of funding to film a few performances. The filmmaker took it upon herself to spend a month documenting the tour of East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron and Nablus.

“I was interested in the real, on-the-ground connections [between] the teachings of King and what the Palestinians were doing,” Field says. Fadi Quran, a 23-year-old former student of Carson's at Stanford who'd returned to Palestine, embodied that connection—not least because of the pictures on Gandhi, King and Mandela on his wall.

“He is emblematic of the youth of Palestine—very bright, very media-connected,” Field says. “Many people now have an image of Arabs based on [the nonviolent, social media-fueled revolutions] in Egypt and Tunisia, and it's not much different than themselves. Yet even I, as much as I try to know about the world, had an image before I went there of the Palestinians as the other. I thought bringing back the story of a person like Fadi was incredibly important for people here.”

The adrenalized process of finding the characters, the narrative and the drama on the fly marked a dramatic change of pace for the veteran East Bay filmmaker. The financing of the film, tentatively entitled Martin Luther King, Jr. in Palestine, has likewise marked Field's entry into a brave new world.

“When you’re doing an historical film, you’re not pressured by its usefulness at a particular time,” she explains. “So I’ve done filmmaking in a fairly traditional way: I’ve raised my development money along the line, and raised the money to shoot before I shot. I can weather the lengthy process it takes to get funded through grants.

“This was done in a totally different way. I had to jump on something before I had [raised] any money. I spent a lot of my own savings, which I try to avoid because it’s a bottomless pit that can drown you.” In yet another departure from business as usual, Field bought a Sony SLR camera and shot the footage herself.

In a strategic effort to get Martin Luther King, Jr. in Palestine out as quickly as possible, Field has maintained the same alacrity in her work with editor Greg Sharpen with which she embarked on the doc. Once they have a rough cut, Field plans to return to Palestine for a quick pickup shoot. The upshot is she can't wait out lengthy grant cycles, and has followed the lead of next-generation filmmakers by launching a Kickstarter campaign.

“You’re reaching out to the community that’s going to use the film before you finish the film,” she says excitedly. At the same time, she allows, “It’s a lot of reaching out, it’s a lot of work and it’s hair-raising.” Field does have an ace up her sleeve, the African American connection, which may or may not help with fundraising but will assuredly come into play when the doc is done.

“This film has the ability to reach beyond the normal camp of people who will watch anything about Palestine,” she notes. Consequently, she's aiming for a one-hour piece, a length that would facilitate its use by individuals and groups as well as international broadcasters. For information, visit Kickstarter.

Notes from the Underground
David Michalak's 1977 silent film, Face of a Stranger, screens August 19 at ATA and August 23 at Tuesday at Tom's Place with Thollem McDonas providing live piano accompaniment. . . . Microcinema International has issued the call for submissions for the 15th edition of its international touring shorts program, Independent Exposure. The theme is "Visual Architecture," the deadline is September 30 and guidelines are available at . . .We are saddened to report that filmmaker, teacher and comrade-in arms George Kuchar has cancer, and has moved from his art-filled apartment in the Mission to the Coming Home hospice in the Castro. We love you madly, George, and wish you Godspeed.

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